Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Top 10 Movies of 2008

I considered devoting a detailed post to the recent Oscars telecast, but there’s really no point; while I’m more than happy to convey my esteemed thoughts on movies, TV shows, and other forms of populist entertainment, I can’t quite motivate myself to write about an awards ceremony. In terms of my predictions, I correctly hit 14 of 21 categories for a score of 67% – not terrible, but certainly not good, especially in a year with an established frontrunner. Most of my upset picks in the technical categories proved to be more idiotic than sneaky; I won’t beat myself up over the Sound categories or Departures winning for Foreign Language Film, but going with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button over Slumdog Millionaire for Original Score was just wishful thinking, and I missed on both big 50-50 areas (Actor and Original Screenplay). Poor form.

(On the plus side, multiple people informed me that the Manifesto helped guide them to strong finishes in their respective Oscar pools. I’m happy to provide assistance, but they obviously must have made some shrewd adjustments to a few of my more dubious selections. In my own pool with weighted scoring, I finished seventh out of 12 and lost to my sister by one fucking point. Seriously poor form.)

So instead, let’s focus on something positive, namely my Top 10 list for 2008. I acknowledge that it’s utterly foolish to rank movies in a rigid order (ask me to provide the same list six months from now, and it’s inevitable that a few films will have shifted), but it’s fun nevertheless. Sadly, however, this year I found the task somewhat sobering, simply because I just didn’t see that many terrific movies in 2008. This pains me a great deal, as I despise the gloomy naysayers who constantly grouse about the quality of contemporary cinema and long for the glory days when photography was black-and-white, computer-generated imagery was nonexistent, and movies in general were a whole lot more boring. But after an astonishing 2007 that forced me to expand my annual list of the 10 best films to 15, the sad truth is that this year I struggled to reach double digits.

Don’t get me wrong: I saw plenty of good, entertaining movies this year. But few had that must-see quality, that pizzazz that makes me excitedly gush to people, “You have to see this!”. In fact, of the films on the following list, I’d only classify four as being categorically great. That number itself isn’t particularly low – it’s rare that I see five unilaterally excellent motion pictures in a given year – but usually it’s supported by 10-15 stellar additional films. This year’s bench just wasn’t as deep. And that’s kind of depressing.

But even if there weren’t a lot of movies to love at the cinema in 2008, there were still plenty worth seeing. All of the films on the following list have their own singular qualities, and while I enter the 2009 moviegoing season with the hope that it features an improved roster, I look forward to watching all of these movies again on Blu-ray. Here goes:


10. Revolutionary Road. I probably would have hated this movie if I hadn’t liked it so much. A brutally depressing tale of a chaotic marriage, Sam Mendes’ film is almost discordantly beautiful, featuring breathtaking imagery from master cinematographer Roger Deakins. Yet it is also unrelenting in its bleakness and, more troubling, its realism. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet – unequivocally two of the finest actors working today – essay two highly identifiable people whose lives are torn apart by … what? Life itself, I suppose, and that’s the most frightening aspect of Revolutionary Road. There are no contrivances, no dubious plot points, no imaginative reaches. There is only a simple marriage and all of the desperation and pain that it entails. I can’t say I sympathized with either of the protagonists in the movie (which may be why its emotional impact is less forceful than that of Mendes’ debut film, American Beauty), but I certainly felt the intensity of their pain.









9. Traitor. It grieves me that Overture Films chose to release Traitor in the dog days of late-August, where it floundered at the box-office despite strong critical reviews. We can only hope that the movie finds an audience on Blu-ray because it’s one of the strongest terrorism-slanted pictures of the decade. Intelligently plotted and ethically intriguing, Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s film is less an action thriller than a thoughtful examination of the current sociopolitical climate of today’s fear-ridden world. Supported by a number of complex characters and featuring a rich, three-dimensional lead performance from Don Cheadle, Traitor asks important questions while refusing to provide easy answers. (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies serves as an excellent companion piece for the more action-oriented.)








8. Frost/Nixon. There aren’t any firearms brandished in Frost/Nixon, but in a way it feels like more of an action movie than Traitor; Ron Howard is no stranger to thrillers, but this strangely represents his most invigorating film since Ransom. Rather than drown the proceedings with excessive archival footage, he emphasizes the historical magnitude of David Frost’s interviews with the disgraced president through tense conversations, transforming what could have been a straightforward docudrama into a heavyweight duel rife with suspense. The overall production is masterful – Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are stupendous, the editing is incredibly precise, and the plot builds breathlessly to a gripping climax. Words may be the main characters’ weapon of choice, but their clashes are as kinetic as any on-screen martial arts battle.








7. Rachel Getting Married. Jonathan Demme certainly refuses to be confined to a single genre – he’s made thrillers (The Silence of the Lambs), music documentaries (Neil Young: Heart of Gold), and character-driven dramas (Philadelphia). But his latest film has all of the trappings of a movie I wouldn’t expect to like. Shot digitally on handheld cameras in a manner that echoes the Dogme 95 movement that produced gems like The Celebration and disasters like Dancer in the Dark, Rachel Getting Married is decidedly lo-fi, and at first I feared it would creak under the weight of its own artistic pretensions. Thankfully, however, the self-indulgent nature of the style blends into the background as the characters come to the fore, and we can observe in peace a family at war. Despite the low-budget style, Demme’s production maintains exquisite verisimilitude, and his characters’ emotions ring with truth. The people in front of the camera aren’t necessarily extraordinary individuals, but they are individuals – each is fully unique and fully developed. Bill Irwin infuses the patriarch with beautiful, uninhibited empathy, while Anne Hathaway’s Kym is one of the most memorably haunted and haunting people I’ve ever met at the movies. Rachel Getting Married may be shot in the method of a throwaway, but its story of destruction and compassion have remained in my mind with unmistakable clarity.









6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Here is another film that lingers long afterward, although in this case the production is simply immaculate. David Fincher has cemented his position within the Hollywood A-list with a spectacular technical achievement – every frame of the picture is meticulously constructed and beautifully shot. But it’s the aching loneliness of the story that elevates The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to the realm of epic. The movie may take its time, but it’s fitting that a meditation on the fragility of life and the slippery nature of human connection be permitted to breathe. There is plenty of wondrous imagery to be found in the film, but there is also profound sadness, most notably in Cate Blanchett’s unforgettable performance. “I was thinking about how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is,” Benjamin tells Daisy around the film’s halfway point. “Some things last,” she responds. She’s right – the movie surely will.









5. Gran Torino. Looking back on Gran Torino, I’m almost ashamed that I enjoyed it as much as I did, given its ham-fisted storyline and emotional bluntness. But there’s something to be said for Clint Eastwood’s seductive filmmaking style, which draws viewers in and obscures plot contrivances from view. Instead we focus on the intimacy of the film’s characters, most obviously Eastwood himself as a hard-edged retiree whose most vivid quality is his universal disgust toward the rest of humanity. Gran Torino’s story of that man’s redemption, as well as the tentative blossoming of the friendship between him and the Hmong family that takes up residence beside him, could have turned saccharine under the leadership of a lesser filmmaker, but in Eastwood’s hands the developments feel entirely credible. More importantly, they’re moving; Eastwood engenders true sympathy for his characters, and we become completely invested in their fight for salvation amidst the harsh realities of American life. The film’s ending is one of such delicate poetry that I couldn’t help but smile. Eastwood is tackling a more ambitious project in 2009 (Nelson Mandela as played by Morgan Freeman – hello Oscar!), but Gran Torino proves he’s still a master even on a small scale.







4. The Dark Knight. I was never a huge Batman fan, and although I enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s franchise reboot Batman Begins, I wasn’t fully on board with it. But The Dark Knight is – to paraphrase Liam Neeson from the earlier film – something else entirely. It’s simply electric. It barrels out of the gate with a showstopping opening, and then it just doesn’t slow down. The movie runs roughly 150 minutes, but it proceeds at a pace so relentless that I would have thought it unsustainable. The “edge of your seat” cliché was created for a film like this; throughout the film I simply could not relax, so intense was the suspense. Technically, the production is superlative – the design is fantastically Gothic, the photography dazzles, and the action scenes are exhilarating. Furthermore, the script is top-notch, featuring fully realized characters tackling intriguing moral questions, while Maggie Gyllenhaal introduces a legitimate emotional component (which was sorely lacking in Batman Begins). The Dark Knight is proof that movies can evolve, can push the envelope, can keep getting better. It may not have received a Best Picture nomination, but it will undoubtedly resonate with audiences for years to come.







3. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. There are certain times when you give yourself over to a movie completely. I can’t remember when it happened to me in Forgetting Sarah Marshall – it was probably after Jason Segel had to pause to consider his response when a woman asked him, “Do you want to gag me?” but before Russell Brand’s impromptu rendition of the romantic charmer “Inside of You” – but it definitely happened. And I was so much happier for it. There are comedies that land a few cheap laughs and no lasting impression, and then there are comedies that truly care about their characters and derive their humor from shrewd plotting and sharp dialogue. This is the latter. Part sad-sack redemption story, part love story, part “I cannot stop fucking laughing because this movie is so damn funny” story, Forgetting Sarah Marshall defies any single label. It achieves greatness not because of the talent of its cast or the wit of its script but because it is made with such purity of feeling, and it effortlessly transfers that feeling to its audience. We laugh at Peter Bretter’s situation, but we also feel compassion for his plight, yet Forgetting Sarah Marshall is so marvelously grounded in reality that it avoids feeling cloying. Instead, it just seems true. So perhaps it does earn a single label after all: It’s a great movie.









2. Slumdog Millionaire. For the record, this is the third time in the last six years that the #2 film on my Top 10 list has won Best Picture (the others being The Departed and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King); maybe I should just slot Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in at #2 in 2009 to boost its chances. But Slumdog Millionaire didn’t need my help. The movie is so joyous and effervescent that it radiates with pure happiness. Curiously, it also dabbles in ugly circumstances with some frequency, but that ugliness is conquered by its heartwarming spirit and fearless kineticism. Slumdog Millionaire thrusts itself forward and backward in time, propelling itself heedlessly while simultaneously maintaining an eye on sound narrative structure. The movie’s screenplay is undeniably clever, and its energy is indomitable, but its characters are what make it memorable. The joy derived from its phenomenally entertaining climax is not the product of calculation – it has been earned. We invest ourselves immediately into the lives of these people, and as we watch their perilous journey, we yearn for their success. Slumdog Millionaire, for all its craft, is foremost a vision of hope, a reminder that we all should never cease to dream.









1. Wall-E. I said it all here, but it’s worth emphasizing: Take the pure thrill I felt while watching The Dark Knight, and the laughter I experienced during Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the joy that coursed through me during Slumdog Millionaire, and you can almost begin to have an idea of how I felt while watching Wall-E. It just has everything. Brilliantly detailed animation, abundant good humor, a remarkably original story, tender pathos, and two of the most iconic screen characters ever created – it’s all there. The delight it generates is pure and unremitting.

You often hear people fondly refer to a work of art that “made them feel like a kid again” without really meaning it. Wall-E generates that kind of power. Every time I watch it, it makes me feel like a child again. It is no mere movie. It’s movie magic.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscars Analysis 2008: Best Picture

NOMINEES

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Frost/Nixon

Milk

The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire


WILL WIN

Twenty categories later, we’ve finally arrived at the big prize, and the suspense is … er, is there any suspense? Like, at all? At this point, I feel like the 2008 Best Picture race is more of a sure thing than the Iraqi election in 2002, when Saddam Hussein won 100% of the vote because no other candidates were allowed on the ballot. As such, the question isn’t “Which movie is going to win Best Picture?” but “Is there any challenger with a shot in hell of defeating Slumdog Millionaire?”.

Not Frost/Nixon. Ron Howard’s sublimely executed glimpse into a key moment in American history may have garnered five key Oscar nominations, but it’s barely sniffed a trophy all awards season. With the exception of an inexplicably dominant showing among the Las Vegas Film Critics and a couple of Adapted Screenplay nods for Peter Morgan, the movie’s only other victory is Location of the Year at the “California on Location Awards.” That kind of win doesn’t exactly scream “Oscar candidate!”.

Not The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Despite leading the pack with 13 nominations (the most for a film since Chicago also tallied 13 in 2002), David Fincher’s epic romance has been utterly dismissed as a contender for the top prize. In fact, some are postulating that the movie will get shut out completely, marking it as the first film in Oscar history to garner at least 12 nominations and fail to take home a single statuette. That’s foolish – the movie is a near-lock for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup, and I also expect it to contend in other technical categories – but it’s indicative of the pessimism surrounding the film’s chances to compete for Best Picture.

Not Milk. Gus Van Sant’s informative, moving biopic may be in contention for a number of major awards this evening – most notably Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay – but most of its buzz seems to be centered around Sean Penn. I suppose it’s possible that there’s some residual guilt among voters for hosing a movie focusing on homosexual characters three years ago when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, but that seems like an awfully big stretch.

And not The Reader, unless … well, unless Harvey Weinstein is truly the devil and simply bribes, threatens, and cheats his way to another Oscar. I wouldn’t put it past him to try – the guy has developed such an appetite for under-the-table scheming that he no longer respects boundaries – but I can’t accept that Academy members could in good conscience (or in any conscience) vote for it over a title as breathtaking and rapturous as Slumdog Millionaire. Harvey Weinstein may be a titan of the industry, but even he can’t top true greatness.

So there it is. All remaining candidates having been properly discounted, we can safely say that the winner of Best Picture at the eighty-first Academy Awards will be Slumdog Millionaire. Jai ho.

(Fun piece of trivia: If, as I expect, Slumdog Millionaire wins Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay tonight, it will become just the fourth movie ever to win those top prizes with receiving an acting nomination for any member of its cast. The other three: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Last Emperor, and Gigi. Replace Best Adapted Screenplay with Best Original Screenplay, and no movie has ever pulled off the feat. You can now kill at your next cocktail party.)









SHOULD WIN

First of all, let me say that this year’s Best Picture nominees represent a solid set of films. The blogosphere tends to grouse incessantly about the Oscars and its process, and this blog is no exception, but it’s important to point out that I enjoyed all of these movies to a certain degree. Would I have selected a different quintet given the opportunity? Of course, and it’s also worth noting that, in spite of the quality of each of these films, they pale in comparison to the stellar set of 2007 nominees. That said, I commend the Academy for, if not choosing the best five films of the year, at least not selecting any clunkers. (How’s that for a backhanded compliment?)

Of the five nominees, Milk impressed me least. Again, this isn’t to say it’s a bad movie – far from it. Featuring a bevy of excellent performances, most notably from Sean Penn as an unfailingly generous crusader, it chronicles an important period in political history with both factual verisimilitude and warm compassion. Yet while I came away from Milk far more knowledgeable about its protagonist, for whatever reason I wasn’t deeply moved by his story. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen so many films about passionate supporters of civil rights that Milk’s tale of one man’s quest for equality is unable to separate itself from other pictures of its ilk, or because the movie fails to adequately explain the admittedly unfathomable circumstances of Harvey Milk’s assassination. Whatever the reason, while I find few faults with Milk and in fact enjoyed and admired it, I didn’t adore it.










I didn’t adore The Reader either, but I was fascinated by it all the same. Unlike Milk, it has plenty of problems – its chronology is sloppy, and some of its supporting characters are hollow and poorly developed – but also unlike Milk, it delivers moments of devastating emotional power. It’s odd that a movie focusing so intensely on guilt, grief, and repugnance can produce such feeling from its audience, but The Reader accomplishes it, primarily because of its refusal to sentimentalize its characters. We may develop a measure of sympathy for Hanna Schmitz while watching the film, but only because director Stephen Daldry and actress Kate Winslet do not ask for that sympathy. Instead, they create a deeply flawed character whose ugliness is matched only by her own self-loathing, and this lends Hanna a haunting sense of truth. There are no monsters or saints in The Reader, only guilty people attempting to cope with their own shame, and the result, while often comfortable, is spellbinding.









Frost/Nixon is somewhat The Reader’s antithesis. It is sparse and immaculate, with no wasted moments and little emphasis on emotional currency. Yet it is also electric. For a movie that operates primarily through spoken dialogue, Ron Howard’s account of a series of mere interviews generates remarkable energy. A truly collaborative effort – the editing is invigorating, the actors are shrewd enough to know when to hesitate and when to sneer, and the screenplay assimilates factual data while driving the story forward – Frost/Nixon feels less like a docudrama than a combative duel for salvation. It may not tug at your heartstrings, but it will undoubtedly quicken your heartbeat.









The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in no way feels like an action movie, although it does possess its share of breathtaking moments. But it is more than a collection of expertly crafted scenes; in totality, it is a grand, sweeping journey, and a heartfelt meditation on life, love, and loss. The emotional impact the film provides is curiously palpable without being acute. Watching it unfold, I was not waylaid by agony (as was the case with last year’s Atonement), but I nevertheless felt deeply, profoundly sad. David Fincher’s picture is languorous, yet it glides effortlessly, an exquisite combination of technique and tenderness. The movie’s last spoken line is a soft, aching farewell, and its immediate visual aftermath – a swift tracking shot of incomparable loveliness – brilliantly personifies the film’s everlasting grace.









Yet the sadness I felt while watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button cannot compared to the undiluted joy I experienced during Slumdog Millionaire. A rousing, unapologetic ode to the grandeur and majesty of cinema, Danny Boyle’s fearless movie thrusts us into darkness and then delivers pure happiness. Boyle dazzles us with a nonstop assortment of theatrical treats – whip-pans, slow-motion sequences, startling jumps forward and back in time – but he maintains an unencumbered love for his characters, a love that easily transfers to the viewer. Watching Slumdog Millionaire, I left behind the cares and worries of my world and heedlessly leapt into its own, a teeming universe of bright colors, raucous music, and pure emotion. A truly unforgettable motion picture, Slumdog Millionaire delivers everything a movie possibly can. And that’s why it gets my vote for Best Picture.










DESERVING

For this, you’ll have to wait for the Manifesto’s prestigious Top 10 Movies of 2008, which will be published in the coming weeks.

(God, I’m such a tease.)

Enjoy the Oscars.

Oscars Analysis 2008: Best Director

NOMINEES

Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire

Stephen Daldry – The Reader

David Fincher – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ron Howard – Frost/Nixon

Gus Van Sant – Milk


WILL WIN

One of the more nebulous categories at the Oscars – ask the question “So, what does a director actually do?” to 10 different voters, and you’ll probably get at least eight different answers – is also one of the more intriguing. I like the Best Director race not on its own terms but because it provides insight into the Best Picture race. Unlike most races that are determined by tallying votes – political elections, MVP voting, etc. – we never learn the precise tabulation of votes cast for the Oscars. On the surface, it’s impossible to tell whether American Beauty earned a greater margin of victory in winning Best Picture in 1999 than Gladiator did a year later.

A true Oscar powerhouse, however, always wins both categories; conversely, if there’s a split, it’s safe to say that the Best Picture race was a close one. To wit, there have been four winners of Best Director in the past 10 years whose movies haven’t taken the top prize: Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan (the movie lost to Shakespeare in Love), Steven Soderbergh for Traffic (movie lost to Gladiator), Roman Polanski for The Pianist (movie lost to Chicago), and Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain (movie inexplicably lost to Crash). Gladiator was locked in a 50-50 duel with Traffic, so the split there made sense, while the Best Picture victories of both Shakespeare in Love and Crash were considered “Giants 17, Patriots 14” level shocks. The only one that doesn’t really fit is statutory rapist Polanski winning over Rob Marshall for Chicago, since Chicago was the clear Best Picture favorite, but it’s possible Marshall split votes with Martin Scorsese in the directorial race.

Predicting the winner of Best Director, therefore, isn’t so much a matter of determining which filmmaker did a superior job in supervising his film but estimating the relative level of dominance of the likely Best Picture victor. If there’s a top dog for the top prize, one can feel confident picking its director. If the race is more muddled, intrepid prognosticators have cause to predict a split.

The only situation where that logic doesn’t apply is when the likely Best Picture winner is a small-scale, intimate movie that doesn’t qualify as a showcase for a director’s talents. Past examples include the character-driven Chariots of Fire (lost to Warren Beatty for the far more ambitious Reds for Best Director) and the syrupy Driving Miss Daisy (which was so bland that its director wasn’t even nominated).

So, in forecasting the Best Director race, we have to ask ourselves two questions. Is there a consensus frontrunner for Best Picture, and if so, does that frontrunner highlight its director’s capabilities in any way?

Conveniently enough, the answers this year are “yes” and “yes”. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire has achieved leviathan status at this point – anyone who isn’t pegging it to win Best Picture isn’t some canny insider with a secret scoop, he’s just being obnoxious. And the movie itself is staged with verve and alacrity, rushing into gritty locations and hurtling back and forth through time. It is not only a great, crowd-pleasing movie but the product of a director’s vision.

Is there a potential challenger? Certainly not Ron Howard, who already has an Oscar for a better movie than Frost/Nixon, or Gus Van Sant, whose Milk generally conforms to the standard biopic track. Stephen Daldry has Harvey Weinstein in his corner, but the rabid producer has likely been focusing his promotional efforts on Kate Winslet.

The only halfway-legitimate competitor would be David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, since its elegance and clarity are so startling, but Fincher hasn’t sniffed a trophy since the National Board of Review recognized him back in the first week of December. There’s no debate: In his first movie since Trainspotting, Danny Boyle takes home the Oscar.









SHOULD WIN

Not wanting to fall into the same trap as the Academy, whose voters for the most part fail to distinguish between the quality of a motion picture and its director (how else to explain how all five Best Picture nominees also earned nods for their directors?), I try to follow a specific set of criteria when selecting my own preference for the category. This remains entirely subjective, of course, and never having directed a movie and generally ignorant about the process, I have minimal personal experience from which to draw. But I like movies in which filmmakers exhibit strong formal command of the cinematic language without straying into self-indulgent pretension. Put another way, I admire directors whose movies are impressive without overtly trying to be so impressive. (Last year, for instance, I preferred Tony Gilroy’s quiet mastery in Michael Clayton to Paul Thomas Anderson’s handiwork in There Will Be Blood because Anderson’s direction, for all its striking flourishes, was also extravagant and attention-seeking.)

This year, three of the nominated filmmakers employ rather unassuming approaches to their craft. (Again, this is perfectly fine in that it suits their respective movies, but it also strikes me as less worthy of this particular Oscar.) Gus Van Sant, recognizing the extraordinary talent of his actors, lets them supply the power in Milk, generally keeping his camera straight and his aim true. It’s in fact quite a relief that Van Sant submerges his natural tendency for ostentation (on display in most of his recent movies, such as the critically acclaimed yet reprehensible Elephant), as any grandstanding on his part could have drowned Milk under the weight of its own artistry. So while I’m not selecting him as my choice for Best Director, I’m nevertheless appreciative that he showed some fucking humility for once.

Stephen Daldry could have taken a few more risks with The Reader, but given that his movie begins to strain once it starts clumsily integrating flash-forwards, perhaps he was wise to remain in the background. Ron Howard does a great job building tension with Frost/Nixon – the film’s intensity is amazing and the editing is top-notch – but when it comes down to it, he’s really just letting two guys talk. Right decision? Absolutely. Deserving of an Oscar? Not so much.

Danny Boyle may have finally established himself as an A-list director in making Slumdog Millionaire, even if he already showcased his frenzied talent 12 years ago with the fantastically compelling Trainspotting. (Shallow Grave, his debut feature, remains a paradigmatic thriller that I dearly hope receives further exposure as a result of Slumdog Millionaire’s success.) Never fearful of moving the camera, he pushes his movie forward at a breakneck pace, such as in an exhilarating early scene in which his child protagonists dart through the teeming alleyways of Mumbai. It’s a wonderfully intrusive style, thrusting us into the heart of a city and exposing us to its aroma and cultural flavor.

It is also very, very busy. That isn’t a bad thing – I like active films, especially those with such clarity of purpose and strength of character as Slumdog Millionaire. But the rush of sound and fury is overwhelming at times, and certain scenes need to be watched multiple times in order to be properly appreciated. Given how great a movie Slumdog Millionaire is, that hardly qualifies as a problem, but occasionally Boyle’s freneticism is less digestible than desired.

With its deliberate pacing and long runtime, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is quite the opposite of frenetic. Yet under David Fincher’s direction, it is not slow but instead highly engrossing and oddly soothing. The film’s subject matter is an obvious departure from Fincher’s past – he has always been more fascinated by villainy and action than heroism and romance – but its ruthless attention to detail remains in accordance with his past pictures. The relentless brutality on display in Se7en is matched by the exactitude of its plotting and the unforgiving look of its palette, while Zodiac functions as a reflective portrait of an obsessive man searching for both truth and self. In a sense then, Benjamin Button, with its reliance on visual proficiency and its sweeping saga of a storyline, represents a perfectly logical entry into the Fincher canon.

Yet he has never made a movie like it. Beautiful, tender, and stunningly sad, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is truly epic, a poignant elegy tinged with humor but eventually overcome with loss and regret. Fincher’s technique, however, has never been sharper. More importantly, he does not call attention to his own talent, simply because he has no need to – his mastery of the art form is evident in every tracking shot, every delicate frame, every computer-assisted effect. The movie may be long, but it has been so painstakingly produced that it attains a sort of self-fulfilling sense of purpose – everything on screen has been created with such craft that nothing could possibly serve as a throwaway.

Make no mistake: I think Slumdog Millionaire is the superior film to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But as far as the men behind the camera go, David Fincher gets my vote for Best Director.










DESERVING

Christopher Nolan – The Dark Knight. This one hurts. Christopher Nolan may never top Memento as an all-around tour de force, but the vision he exhibits in The Dark Knight is simply extraordinary. At once an action spectacle and a morality play, the movie provides such a breathless, unforgettable filmgoing experience that watching it seems to qualify as a life event. Nolan, utilizing precise cinematography and a haunting score, ratchets up the intensity in the very first scene and then just doesn’t stop. That the Academy failed to recognize his blockbuster as an artistic achievement is criminal.









Sam Mendes – Revolutionary Road. Like Nolan, Mendes is a methodical Brit who may never match an early feature in his career (in his case, American Beauty, unbelievably his first film), but that hasn’t stopped him from trying. Revolutionary Road doesn’t inspire the emotional trauma in audiences that it unleashes upon its characters, but it is nevertheless a beautifully constructed, haunting film. Mendes introduces claustrophobia and panic into each intimate conversation, turning an idyllic setting into an unyielding nightmare.









Clint Eastwood – Gran Torino. There’s something comforting about confirming that this wizened old-timer is still a master of his craft. Unlike some of his more recent films (including the very good Changeling), Gran Torino is taut and focused, examining the lives of a very few characters in a ramshackle neighborhood of Detroit. It may be melodramatic, but it is also touching and lyrical.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Oscars Analysis 2008: Best Actor

NOMINEES

Richard Jenkins – The Visitor

Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon

Sean Penn – Milk

Brad Pitt – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler


WILL WIN

Of the eight major Oscar categories, I think the Best Actor race is the hardest to predict this year (perhaps along with Best Original Screenplay). That isn’t to say my prophecies in the remaining categories are foolproof; the Academy has shown time and again that there’s no such thing as a lock at the Oscars (guh, Brokeback Mountain), and last year’s show featured winners in big races that ranged from legitimately surprising (Marion Cotillard) to “That fucker came out of nowhere!” (Tilda Swinton). But there’s usually at least enough data floating around out there for me to feel comfortable with my selection. This category, not so much.

But fuck it, I need a challenge. The good news is that we can safely eliminate two categories right away. Richard Jenkins has been walking around with the “I’m just happy to be here!” face that he borrowed from the ’99 Knicks after they got demolished by the Spurs in the finals. Not that I blame him – the guy has been one of the most venerable character actors in cinema for the past decade, and he was about as visible to the moviegoing public as a pack of thestrals. An Oscar nomination should change that. Still, in terms of winning, he’s hopeless.

Also hopeless, oddly enough, is the biggest movie star of the bunch, Brad Pitt. Now, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button acquired the most nominations out of any film this year (13), and if it were primed for Return of the King-style dominance, I might be inclined to keep Pitt in the running. But while I expect Benjamin Button to take home its share of prizes in the technical categories, Slumdog Millionaire remains the clear frontrunner for the big prizes. As such, Pitt doesn’t have any coattails to ride, and his performance – while perfectly serviceable – isn’t of the caliber of his competitors.

So we’re left with three, and while Frank Langella is clearly on the outside looking in, he can’t be discounted completely. Any time a race is explicitly documented as a duel between two major candidates, there’s always a chance that the favorites will split the vote, allowing an outsider to sneak in for the victory (see: Adrien Brody, The Pianist, 2002). Since Langella clearly ranks ahead of both Pitt and Jenkins, it’s feasible that he could take the prize should the leaders chip away at each other’s armor too heavily.

Those leaders, of course, are Sean Penn for Milk and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler, and this particular Best Actor race is shaping up to be one of the strangest Oscar duels ever, and one that is rife with subplots. First off, it’s practically a dead heat; usually one contender piles up more hardware on the minor circuits, but Penn and Rourke have each won more than a half-dozen awards. Penn’s top prizes came from the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Broadcast Film Critics, plus big wins in New York and L.A., while Rourke claimed victory at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes. Hell, the pair even tied for Best Actor – twice (in Boston and San Francisco). It’s simply impossible to tally up the previous wins and declare one of them the prohibitive favorite.

Even more bizarre has been the amicability of the whole thing. Granted, it’s not as if actors in contention for Oscars make a habit of ritually insulting their opponents, but you can usually sense some fierce competition beneath the veneer of civility (call me crazy, but I think there’s a reason Adrien Brody and Jack Nicholson have never worked together). But over the past month, the perception is that Penn and Rourke actually seem to be rooting for each other. They’re constantly thanking each other in their respective victory speeches, interviewing together, and generally palling around like Butch and Sundance.

(Frankly, it’s a bit weird, and I find the whole spirit of camaraderie vaguely un-American. If I’m ever competing for something against a friend of mine, you can be damn sure I’ll be desperate in my desire to win so I can rub it in his face for the next 10 years. In fact, that pretty much personifies my mindset every time I play ping-pong.)

Then there’s the context of each actor’s performance. Penn has always been an outspoken Hollywood liberal (he mumbled derisively about Bush and WMDs while accepting his Oscar for Mystic River five years ago), and his resonant portrayal as a famous gay politician from San Francisco has provided grist for controversy in a state that just passed Proposition 8. Rourke, meanwhile, plays a washed-up former superstar looking for redemption, a career path that eerily mirrors his own trajectory in Hollywood.

And then there are the disparate personalities of the actors themselves. Penn is the classic Oscar veteran – he’s a familiar face (Milk represents his fifth nomination), he knows how to play the game (he’s dampened the aggressiveness of his politicking lately), and he has developed cachet as one of the most consistently excellent actors operating today. You know what you’re going to get from Sean Penn, and so do the voters.

Rourke, in contrast, is a firebrand. The warm-blooded actor tends to curse during his speeches, there are whispers of steroid use in his past, and he hardly possesses the pedigree of a Best Actor winner (his prior movie to The Wrestler? Something called Stormbreaker. Even I hadn’t heard of it). It’s uncertain, however, how voters will respond to his distinctive persona. Will they shrink from his roguish iconoclasm or embrace his man-of-the-people authenticity?

These external factors and others will weigh heavily on voters’ minds when filling out their ballots, and I find that fact highly unfortunate. My problem is that, with all the pop-culture hoopla surrounding the duo’s nominations, no one seems to be focusing on the performances themselves. That’s a shame, because they’re both fine examples of talented artists dedicating themselves to their craft. I recognize that it’s only natural for public perception to infiltrate the voting process to a degree, but this particular Best Actor race, with its infinite storylines and groundswell of public awareness, seems to have distanced itself completely from the actual acting.

“Hasn’t Mickey earned it because of his amazing comeback? Will the gay community’s support help or hurt Sean’s chances? Isn’t it only fair for Mickey to win the Oscar, since Sean already has one? Shouldn’t we acknowledge Sean’s efforts in highlighting a revolutionary moment in American politics?” These seem to be the questions people are constantly asking, as opposed to the one that most interests me, namely: “Which performance do you think is best?”

Yet such is the way the game is played, I suppose. As such, in predicting a winner, I’m forced to look beyond the acting and at the actors. And in this case, I think the triumphant tale of Rourke’s redemption trumps the topical relevance of Penn’s homage. It’s a complete guess, of course, and I don’t pretend to have any insider information illuminating my pick. (Also, I’m still not counting out Frank Langella – if he wins, I will be surprise but not shocked.) But Rourke’s comeback has reached astonishing proportions in the public eye – at this point he’s like Lazarus crossed with Kurt Warner. Voters just won’t be able to resist picking him. Mickey Rourke takes home his first Oscar in a squeaker.










SHOULD WIN

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m less impressed with this year’s actors than I am with their counterparts in the Best Actress race. Perhaps that says more about the stellar quality of today’s leading ladies than it does about these five actors, but the fact remains that last year featured two performances that absolutely blew me away (George Clooney in Michael Clayton and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, in that order). This year didn’t have any.

But still, these are all very good performances from very good actors. Brad Pitt again illustrates his remarkable humility in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. You’d think such a naturally charismatic individual would have difficulty diminishing his star quality for the sake of the film, but Pitt is marvelously restrained as the title character in David Fincher’s epic. Benjamin, stuck in an existential predicament, is a contemplative soul, and Pitt plays him as a quietly watchful sort, reacting to the events around him rather than thrusting himself into the limelight. It isn’t a showy performance, but it’s the right one for the movie, and Pitt’s discipline helps infuse Benjamin with dignity, sadness, and longing.










Richard Jenkins’ work in The Visitor is also not showy, but it is ingrained with a deep sense of truth. The film tells the potentially preposterous story of a depressed middle-aged man named Walter who, after finding that two immigrants have taken up residence in his part-time apartment, strikes up a tentative friendship with one of them and eventually rediscovers his passion for life while learning to play the drums. It’s a somewhat absurd plot, and in another’s hands we almost certainly would have rejected it, but Jenkins – playing a bored economics professor who finds his students to be stale (my Dad’s reaction: “It was like looking in a mirror”) – makes Walter’s transformation gradual and therefore completely convincing. He intensifies the loneliness and monotony in Walter’s life, thus lending credibility to his abandonment of it and his embrace of the more free-wheeling lifestyle of the immigrants. It’s a perfectly modulated performance, and while The Visitor may be a minor film, it hopefully signals the arrival of a major talent to the Hollywood stage.

(Jenkins’ combination of restraint and versatility reminds me, oddly enough, of another stellar character actor who made the big-time after he found himself lost in New Zealand. Jenkins may lack Viggo Mortensen’s innate charisma, but he has the acting chops. We can expect to see him at the Oscars again.)










I don’t have a whole lot to say about Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler except to say that he’s completely convincing. Physically we have no difficulty buying him as a fearsome but aged beast of a man, and he features a full emotional registry, showcasing his character’s wounded pride and compassion as well as his anger and regret. His best scenes are those with Marisa Tomei, where he politely but aggressively pursues her character with the perfect combination of clumsiness and charm. His moments with Evan Rachel Wood are less convincing, but that’s more the fault of the film’s hyperbolic screenplay than with either of the actors. Given Rourke’s history, I don’t know that we can safely expect him to return with another performance of this caliber in the near future, but I can’t deny the quality of his work in this film.

I will admit, however, that I’m slightly confused regarding the hullabaloo over Rourke’s supposed resurrection as an actor. I’m not disputing his lackluster status during the ‘90s; any time your most memorable appearance in a decade was in a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman, it’s safe to say those were 10 rough years. But Rourke was already tracking back to success with two high-profile performances in 2005 – he was deliriously entertaining as an invincible vigilante in Sin City and similarly engaging as a rough-and-tumble bounty hunter in Tony Scott’s unappreciated (albeit flawed) Domino. Those are two high-profile movies – it’s not as if the guy was in a monastery or anything.

More to the point, the prevailing theme of Rourke’s Oscar campaign is that he’s a former superstar who fell from grace, and The Wrestler represents his return to peak form. So I have to ask: Was Mickey Rourke really that big a star in the first place? Maybe I’m oblivious because I wasn’t attuned to the Hollywood scene in the ‘80s, but from what I can gather Rourke’s best movies were Body Heat (1981) and Diner (1982). He was good in both, not to mention incredibly good-looking, but he was also a supporting player. My favorite performance of his is in Angel Heart, and no one’s ever heard of that movie. The Pope of Greenwich Village didn’t crack $10 million at the box office, Year of the Dragon earned middling reviews, and Nine 1/2 Weeks is only memorable because of the sex scenes. In related news, do you know how many combined Oscar and Golden Globe nominations Rourke had received in his career prior to The Wrestler? ZERO. It’s not like critics were hailing him as the next Paul Newman or anything.

So let’s cool it with labeling Rourke’s role in The Wrestler as this wildly improbable, “Cliff Lee winning the Cy Young after putting up a 6.29 ERA the year before” level comeback. John Travolta in Pulp Fiction – now that was a comeback. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler was just a case of a talented but struggling actor finally finding the right role. I’m glad he did. Now let’s move on.

I wasn’t alive in the ‘70s, so I can’t tell you how accurate Frank Langella’s depiction of Tricky Dick is in Frost/Nixon, but I do know that he creates a thoroughly compelling and three-dimensional character. Consider a great throwaway scene early on in which Nixon discusses his impression of Frost with Jack Brennan, his confidant played with stout pride by Kevin Bacon. Nixon didn’t like Frost’s shoes because they didn’t have laces, so he asks Brennan for his opinion. “I think a man’s shoes should have laces, sir,” Brennan replies instantly. Nixon glances at him for a moment, then nods thoughtfully. “Quite right,” he says.

It’s a seemingly insignificant moment, but it sets up everything we need to know about Nixon as a character: his smug sense of superiority, his obsessive need to dominate his opponent in every measure, his thirst for approval from his followers. Langella doesn’t waste it – the look he shoots at Bacon is measured and calculating, as though Nixon is wondering if Brennan is simply telling him what he wants to hear. This also sets up the movie’s touching final scene in which, against all odds, we find we have developed a measure of sympathy for the president. I didn’t live through the Nixon years, but I heard enough about them from my parents to enter the theatre with a strong bias against him, but Langella’s portrayal of Nixon is so sincere (though not overly sympathetic) that he somehow turns a megalomaniac into a tragic hero.

(My only problem? I honestly don’t think Langella gave the best performance in the film. But we’ll get to that.)











My pick for Best Actor, however, is Sean Penn for Milk, for a performance of extraordinary compassion. Penn plays Harvey Milk not as a pure idealist but as a canny, assertive political animal. He recognizes he can radicalize the gay rights movement, and he isn’t above mounting a campaign that focuses on literally cleaning up dogshit in order to get elected and make a true difference.

Yet Harvey’s political ambition and skill is only part of the story of Milk. It’s also, of course, about the man himself, and the selfless manner in which he relates to others. Penn plays Harvey with a remarkable earnestness that is unbridled and real; an early scene in which he effortlessly seduces James Franco highlights his raw energy, both sexual and otherwise. But he also recognizes the hate that pervades America, and he determines to combat that hate, it seems, with pure kindness.

There’s a beautiful scene midway through the film when Harvey, preparing to thwart potential riots, receives a phone call from a teenage boy. He politely dismisses him, only then the boy tells him that he’s planning on killing himself. Penn’s face goes absolutely still before he replies, quietly, “You don’t want to do that … There’s nothing wrong with you”. It’s the same message Harvey is delivering to the entire country, but Penn’s voice is so focused, his expression so fixed, that we feel at that moment that he cares only for the welfare of the boy. There are politicians who say things in order to get elected, and then there are those who really care. Perhaps it’s fantasy, seeing a politician so desperately concerned with helping his own people, but in the hands of Sean Penn, it’s a heartwarming fantasy indeed.










DESERVING

Michael Sheen – Frost/Nixon. And here is my favorite performance in Frost/Nixon. Sheen was faced with a similar predicament in The Queen, when Helen Mirren won 74 different trophies and no one noticed his pitch-perfect performance as Tony Blair. This time around, Frank Langella is receiving deserved recognition, but I was more partial to Sheen’s portrayal of David Frost as a supremely charismatic, slightly hopeless TV personality. Sheen doesn’t utilize big moments in his acting – he prefers to convey feeling through hesitancy and timing. As we watch him quietly begin to drown in the pool he’s created for himself in Frost/Nixon, he doesn’t exaggerate his developing panic. He lets it build, growing gradually more squeamish and less confident with each scene, until one blissful moment of release – when he barks “It’s my birthday!” to a colleague – grants us an open window into his soul. We need to get him on an Oscar ballot soon before he gives up and focuses all his time on the Underworld franchise.









Leonardo DiCaprio – Revolutionary Road. As with his costar in this movie, at this point it’s almost boring how good he is. Every emotion he displays in this movie – whether he’s screaming at his wife or coolly putting the moves on a female subordinate – is utterly convincing. The guy is just on an unparalleled run right now; he’s been absolutely superb in his last six movies (in order: Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, The Departed, Blood Diamond, Body of Lies, and this). Even the greatest actors occasionally make a movie where they dial it down from “totally incredible performance” to “really good performance”. Not DiCaprio, not right now. He’s been in the Totally Incredible Zone for six consecutive movies. And frankly, I don’t see it stopping with Shutter Island.

(If I had to come up with a sports corollary for him right now, I’d go with Stan Musial. Everyone obsesses over Williams and DiMaggio, and then we look at the numbers and realize Musial hit 475 home runs and had an OPS over .900 for 15 straight years, only no one ever seems to talk about him. Well, right now the Academy needs to watch some footage of Stan the Man, because someday we’re going to look back and wonder how the fuck DiCaprio didn’t get his first Oscar till he was almost 40.)













Viggo Mortensen – Appaloosa. More of the same from Viggo: completely disappears into his character, doesn’t take any shortcuts, makes no false moves. Just another performance of absolute integrity. At the beginning of this decade he was costarring in 28 Days with Sandra Bullock; now he’s the lead in the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He’s arrived.










Don Cheadle – Traitor. It’s impressive that a Hollywood actor even signed up to play this part. How the fuck did they pitch this to him? “O.K., so here’s the deal: You play a religiously devout Muslim who sells bombs to fanatics, and the audience has to spend the entire first hour of the movie wondering if you’re a terrorist, and there isn’t any sort of narrative crux like a voiceover, so you have to convey your character’s inner conflict entirely with your eyes.” If I’m an agent, I’m telling my client to pass. Cheadle didn’t, and we’re fortunate for it.









Jason Segel – Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I could talk about how he brings legitimate emotional complexity to an archetypal role, or how he displays a veteran’s knack for sharp comic timing, or how he’s ballsy for having the nerve to show his junk. Or I could just watch him imitate Ian McKellen as Gandalf screaming “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” over and over again.









Ben Kingsley – Elegy. Sir Ben stretched himself quite a bit this year, playing a weed-addicted American shrink in The Wackness and a corrupt Russian detective in Transsiberian. (He also took a part in The Love Guru – apparently his 401(k) got hit harder than most.) Still, he’s most effective in his element here, as an intellectual British professor who systematically seduces a young student (Penélope Cruz – where did these acting chops come from?) only to find himself emotionally detached from the whole enterprise. It’s a calculated, intelligent performance, one full of self-loathing but refreshingly free of vanity.









Clint Eastwood – Gran Torino. Talk about a man in his element. You could argue that Eastwood isn’t even acting here, but then you’d be arguing that he’s actually a terminally ill gun-toting racist, and I’d have to take issue with that. Gran Torino deals with weighty, obvious themes, but Eastwood brings a fine level of texture to its otherwise basic redemption story. He sells the character completely, and in doing so he sells the movie.








Chiwetel Ejiofor – Redbelt. No, you don’t know who he is because you can’t pronounce his name, but I promise you that you’ve seen him before (Dirty Pretty Things, Love Actually, Serenity, Children of Men, American Gangster). If he changed his name to Chase Eastman, he’d probably have signed a superhero deal by now. Regardless, Ejiofor is phenomenal in David Mamet’s curious ode to mixed martial arts. It’s difficult enough to master the staccato patter of Mamet’s dialogue, but Ejiofor does that and also imbues his character with a deep sense of honor and dignity. There is no questioning this man’s moral code, nor this actor’s talent.









Sam Rockwell – Choke. Sam Rockwell doesn’t need a name-change; as far as names go, “Sam Rockwell” is pretty sweet. He just needs a better press agent. Anyone who can bring a sliver of humanity to a sex addict who forces himself into choking fits at diners so he can be rescued and hopefully receive money from his benefactor should have at least received a Golden Globe nomination by now.









Robert Downey Jr. – Iron Man. Here’s my question. When he says “I am Iron Man” at the end of the movie, was there any doubt in your mind about the truth of that statement, or were you just nodding? I was nodding.